The 239th Merseyside derby will certainly be a unique one. For the first time in 129 years, and only the second time in history, the manager of one team will have previously managed the other. When Rafael Benitez took charge of Everton in the summer this first meeting with Liverpool will have been circled in red — or, rather, blue.
The Spaniard is the first manager since William Edward Barclay in the 19th century to cross the city divide. Benitez, however, does not see the circumstances as anything particularly special albeit slightly different. “With Newcastle, Chelsea – even with Valencia in the past – I’ve played against Liverpool. Now it’s Everton and this time it is different,” he said.
Of course the sideshow of Benitez and Everton versus Liverpool was always going to define this derby meeting, but more pressing matters are at stake when Liverpool travel across Stanley Park on Wednesday evening. Benitez is starting to face the wrath of the Everton supporters after a troubling run of results and performances.
Everton have not won in seven matches, taking just two points from a possible 21, with that sequence consisting of five defeats and two draws. Throughout the past month they only managed to score one goal. The tepid displays are not helping Benitez’s cause, albeit he has been without the spine of his team — Yerry Mina, Abdoulaye Doucoure and Dominic Calvert-Lewin — for much of that run.
“[The derby] will be an opportunity for us to change things. It’s a massive game for us,” admitted Benitez, who will have Richarlison back from suspension and at his disposal. “We have a bad time now and we need to start winning but the derby is always an opportunity to put things right.
“A derby is always special in every country but I live in the city so the passion is massive and really important for everyone. That’s why I want to win and do well because for us as a club, it’s important to bring back the confidence and use an opportunity to change things for the rest of the season. If we get three points it could be a massive change in our season.”
Derby comes amidst growing unrest
The prospect of the travelling Liverpool supporters singing their former manager’s name is real and the possibility of the home fans booing him is just as likely. After Sunday’s 1-0 defeat to Brentford fans voiced their displeasure at Benitez and the players, who toiled without reward and failed to spark.
Benitez believes, however, that the Everton support will back their team during Wednesday’s encounter. “Obviously at the beginning we were really happy, now we are frustrated,” he said of Everton’s flailing form. “As a manager you want to win and do well. It’s a challenge for me and I can understand the frustration from fans.
“It’s been some years we are not improving at the level we deserve and that is why the fans are feeling as they are at the moment. I think the fans are intelligent and know we need them. You can complain when players are not playing well or tactics are not working but at the same time they cannot complain about the effort. It’s a derby, I’m sure they will be behind the team.”
On a positive note, Benitez can look favourably at Everton’s recent derby history: they have not lost in any of the past three, winning the last one at Anfield in March, while Liverpool have failed to win at Goodison Park since December 2016, since then there have been four draws. In fact eight of the last nine league derbies at Goodison have been drawn, with five being goalless.
Such is the predicament that Benitez finds himself in that he would most probably take a goalless draw before kick-off. Especially given they will be coming up against a team who have scored 39 times in 13 league matches so far this season and can set a new English record of scoring twice or more in 18 successive games should they find the net more than once here.
“I think we have to stay focused and go back to the principles that we were defending as a unit, compact together, and play counter-attack,” Benitez said. “The main thing is to go to the principles, we have to be strong in defence physically and mentally.
“To win games is what everybody is expecting but to go to a position where you can regularly compete and win games in the Premier League means you have to do a lot of things right. I’ve said so many times ‘Rome was not built in one day’ and we are working on that, but I am still disappointed.”